On an August afternoon at Navy Pier, pedestrians crowd the 3,300-foot promenade, lining up to ride the brand-new Ferris wheel, stepping onto tour boats and cooling off with glistening ice cream cones. Inside one of the yachts lining the dock, three actresses from “Chicago Fire” — much like the rapturous tourists outside — are all energy.
Beyoncé’s “Formation” plays on the speakers as Monica Raymund claps and kicks her knees in the air, circling Miranda Rae Mayo in her makeup chair. Across the boat, Kara Killmer taps her hands and feet to the beat as she gets her shiny blonde hair curled.
“I think we are the coolest, most chill, loving, generous cast in [TV],” Raymund says. “There’s a respect in our cast that I’ve never seen — [except] maybe in the cast of ‘Friends.’”
The comparison isn’t far-fetched: The cast members describe themselves as nothing less than a family. The series, which premiered in fall 2012 and debuts its fifth season Oct. 11 on NBC, follows the heroic lives of the Chicago Fire Department’s firefighters and paramedics. The show has been successful enough to inspire spin-offs like “Chicago P.D.,” “Chicago Med” and the upcoming “Chicago Justice.” Still, “Fire” brings in the most viewers of any show in the franchise, with more than 10 million tuning in per episode.
Looking at them, it’s easy to imagine they’ve been friends forever, but truth is, they all stepped onto the set as strangers, bringing with them very different stories.
Raymund, who’s been in the cast since Season 1 and plays paramedic-in-charge and firefighter Gabriela Dawson, trained at The Juilliard School in New York City before landing her first gig on “Law & Order: SVU” at 21 years old. A few years later, she was in Los Angeles when she heard about a casting call for a Chicago-based paramedic. “I was really excited to [portray] a tough woman, [who worked a] blue collar union job and was a female hero,” says Raymund, who now lives in Lincoln Park.
Killmer’s entry was more arduous but, much like the actress herself, full of humor. The Baylor University grad, who grew up in a tiny town south of Fort Worth — “We just got a Starbucks!” she laughs — sent in audition tape after audition tape. “I could never get in the room but I sent in videos,” says the actress, who now plays paramedic Sylvie Brett. “I found some the other day and it was horrible. You can see me in this ugly yellow corduroy jacket because I was trying to look like a firefighter.”
Finally, in 2014, she got a call to come in for an audition. Maybe it was her tenacity, or the fact that the show’s writers, Derek Haas and Michael Brandt, were also Baylor Bears, but three days later, she flew out to Chicago for good, moving to a place in River West.
Playing one of the newest firefighters, Stella Kidd, California native Mayo — who joined the cast in Season 4 and now lives in Wicker Park — also put herself on a casting tape. “Normally they fly you out [for] a chemistry read,” she says. “But this is the first job I’ve ever had where I sent the tape in and two weeks later I got a call that I got the job.”
The toughest part, however, came after landing their roles: learning how to act like real-life first responders. They have the guidance of on-set technical advisors like former Deputy District Chief Steve Chikerotis and paramedics like Michele Martinez, who Raymund’s character is partially based on.
“We’d hang out with [them] while they were at the firehouse and ride with them in the ambulance on the job,” Raymund says. “They’re dealing with death and grief all the time; instead of procreating that, in order to process and let it go, [they] laugh. All these characters have moments of comedy or humor to lighten the mood.”
And though the soul of the show is this humor and support woven into life-or-death situations, it’s the city of Chicago that tells the greatest story of all.
“The city is a great backdrop,” Killmer says. “It’s its own character. What allows [the show] to stay fresh is that there are so many elements to deal with in city life that help keep it interesting. Part of what makes it authentic and part of what makes the show really feel Chicagoan is that we are in this city, shooting in the streets.”
Chicago is nothing like LA, Raymund adds, where entertainment has become ubiquitous — it’s far more authentic, and has brought together this unlikely group of people. “Chicago became this glue and created a family,” she says. “We are not being hyperbolic at all because all of us say this: We will be friends for the rest of our lives.”
SPLASH: Who is the biggest jokester on set?
MIRANDA RAE MAYO: Everybody. I have the itch to mess with everybody. I think David [Eigenberg] and me have the biggest prank tension. Something is about to pop.
KARA KILLMER: It’s a combo between Christian Stolte, Yuri [Sardarov] and Joe Minoso. I would say that David Eigenberg would be a part of it but, I gotta say, he’s the one who gets the brunt of the pranks.
S: What kinds of pranks?
KK: This year for David’s birthday, we all pitched in and bought him a bidet. One of the firefighters who works with us showed up to his house and installed it. David sent a heartfelt video and was like, “I feel like crying, but I’m also mad!”
MONICA RAYMUND: He’s a -year-old man stuck in a 13-year-old’s body. He’s game for everything. We’ll be on a scene, let’s say he’s eating a sandwich. A piece of meat falls on the ground, the man will pick up the piece of meat on the street and put it back in his mouth because he wants to see me laugh.
S: Who is the best with fans? Never says no to a selfie?
KK: David by far. Even if he’s exhausted, even if it’s 15 below, if there’s a group of fans, he’ll go over and shake hands and take pictures.
S: Who is the biggest diva on set?
MRM: Maybe Christian Stolte, because he is the greatest actor of our generation. But that’s understandable. I don’t even consider that to be diva behavior, it’s just appropriate because he is that great.
S: Who would you want by your side in a real life-or-death situation?
KK: Taylor [Kinney]. I think he has some really strong leadership skills. He tends to be a little quieter than everybody, but I feel like he’s really observant. When push comes to shove, he will do whatever he needs to take care of the people he loves.
S: What’s the funniest interaction you’ve had with Chicagoans while shooting?
KK: When I first started I would go to this Starbucks at the crack of dawn. A lot of people thought I was [previous cast member] Lauren German [and] would be like, “Didn’t you die?” People would be so broken hearted … [they’re] still grieving the loss of Leslie Shay.
MR: We were filming on the street and this gaggle of teenage boys came up — probably like 15 of them. They were so cute. They were like, “There’s Dawson!” I [thought], that must be what it’s like to be Taylor Kinney, with all the teenage girls screaming at him.
We hosted the female powerhouses of NBC’s “Chicago Fire” — Kara Killmer, Monica Raymund and Miranda Rae Mayo — on the Chicago Elite private yacht for our Fall Arts issue cover shoot. The ladies doffed their firefighting gear and turned up the heat in runway-ready gowns and glamorous hair and makeup.
Photographer: Maria Ponce
Shoot producer: Katerina Bizios
Stylist: favia, Ford Artists
Styling assistant: Luis Cruz, Ford Artists
Makeup: Shannon O’Brien; Shannonobrienmua.com
Hair: April Telman; Blohaute.com
Location: Elite Private Yachts, part of the Entertainment Cruises Chicago Fleet, at Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand
On Killmer: Audra, $1,370, Chalk Boutique, 2611 Prairie, Evanston; Chalkboutique.com
On Raymund: Azeeza US, $895; Barneys.com
On Mayo: Joseph, $645, VMR, 34 E. Oak; Vmrchicago.com
On Killmer: Preen dress, $1,015, Chalk Boutique, 2611 Prairie, Evanston; Chalkboutique.com
On Raymund: Antonio Berardi dress, $1,715, VMR, 34 E. Oak; Vmrchicago.com
On Mayo: Michael Kors Collection dress and sweater, price available upon request, 900 N. Michigan; Michaelkors.com
On Mayo: Azeeza US, $895; Barneys.com
On Killmer: MM6 dress, $455, VMR, 34 E. Oak, Vmrchicago.com